Father Christmas: History Throughout Eras

Updated May 28, 2021
Santa Claus carrying sack of gifts

Ever wonder where the stories of Father Christmas came from? Well, you'll be surprised to learn that Father Christmas was a very generous saint. Learn about St. Nicholas and how he became the magical Christmas gift giver known around the world.

St. Nicholas: The Legend Behind Father Christmas

When it comes to tracking down the beginnings of Father Christmas, the story typically starts with St. Nicholas. While St. Nicholas's birthday is questionable, he was a 4th-century bishop in Myra, an area in present-day Turkey, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. He was known to be a kind and generous bishop that helped many downtrodden people and children. Given his reputation for generosity, St. Nicholas quickly became a legend in his time and beyond. In fact, Russians and Greeks named St. Nicholas the patron saint of children and sailors. While St. Nicholas remained a popular saint until the 1500s, he didn't become the icon of Christmas until after the Protestant Reformation.

Protestant Reformation

During the 1500's Protestant Reformation in England, saints became discouraged. Therefore, the figure of Christmas morphed into "St. Christmas" or "Old Man Christmas."

Bann of Father Christmas

In 1644, the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations and Father Christmas as well. People missed the revelry, and the figure of Father Christmas was often used to express their dissatisfaction. At this time, Father Christmas became part of mummer's plays, traditional Christmas folk dramas. Often, he strode onto the stage at the beginning of the performance, calling to the audience, "In comes I, old Father Christmas, be I welcome or be I not? I hope old Father Christmas, will never be forgot."

Imprisonment of Father Christmas

In 1645, a London broadsheet taunted the government with the story about the conviction and imprisonment of Father Christmas, and "the Hue and Cry after his escape therefrom." In 1678, a book titled The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas and his Clearing by Jury was published in London. This book showcased the country'a discontent over the cancelation of Christmas.

Happy old Santa Claus

Restoration of Father Christmas Around the World

At the end of the 16th century, Father Christmas was restored along with the monarchy in Europe. While Father Christmas is based on the patron saint of St. Nicholas, it takes many forms depending on the area. For example, Germany had Christkind, while the Netherlands embraced Sinterklaas.

See the names and descriptions of Father Christmas:

  • Finland: Joulupukki (Yule goat) - goat spirit that drives a sleigh
  • France: Père Noël - a man with a long red cloak, fills shoes with candy
  • Germany and Austria: Christkind (Kris Kringle) - angelic, baby Jesus appearance
  • Netherlands: Sinterklaas - a man with a cloak that rides a white horse
  • Norway: Julenissen - Christmas elf
  • Russia: Father Frost - man with cloak, commonly seen with Snow Maiden
  • Sweden: Jultomten - dwarf-like being
  • United Kingdom: Father Christmas - green cloak, wreath, and staff

Father Christmas in the United States

In the 1700s, Santa Claus entered the scene in the United States. Thanks to the Dutch bringing the stories of St. Nicholas with them on the boat. The Dutch shortened St. Nicholas's name to Sinterklaas, which evolved into the American Santa Claus.

Santa Claus Becomes a Legend

Enthralled by the stories of Santa Claus, in the 1800s, artists and poets latched on to these stories. The Santa Claus that you know and love today started to take form. In the 1820s, the poem Old Santeclaus was published in the New York Times. This poem described Santa Claus with a sleigh and reindeer going over chimney tops to give presents. This concept of Santa Claus was solidified through the poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore, or as it is more commonly known, "Twas the Night Before Christmas."

The Iconic Look of Santa Claus

Riding on the coattails of Moore's poem, cartoonist Thomas Nast created an 1881 cartoon of the Santa. Appearing in Harpers Weekly, Nast's Santa has rosy cheeks, a round belly, and an iconic red suit. He also had a full white beard and arms full of toys for children.

Father Christmas Today

Despite the name or appearance, Father Christmas is a household name across the globe. In December, children wait impatiently for presents to come. But now you know the origins of Father Christmas started with a generous bishop.

Father Christmas: History Throughout Eras